We should not be surprised that much of the West is on fire. Or that more than 3.1 million acres already have burned in California, another million in Oregon and in Washington, and that tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate.
The downwind consequences shouldn’t come as a shock, either. Toxic plumes have darkened the skies of the small Oregon town of Sisters as well as the metropolitan areas of Seattle, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.
The least surprising thing about this summer’s conflagrations is that we have done this to ourselves. We are the architects of the world that is now going up in smoke.
Picture this Los Angeles Times photograph: a paint-stripped car resting on its buckled roof, its tires and hubcaps incinerated, windows shattered, and wheels weirdly melted. Framing the backdrop are the ash-white remains of a Sierran forest.
The photograph was snapped in the furious aftermath of the Bear Fire, since subsumed into the North Complex Fire, which has burned 250,000 acres in California’s Plumas National Forest. But it could have been taken at any of this summer’s infernos, because its symbolism is impossible to ignore.
Even as we fear for the owners of these abandoned automobiles, and are astounded at the intensity of heat that could turn tempered steel molten, we can’t miss how burned-out cars explain our fiery circumstances. After all, no sooner had this four-wheeled, fossil-fueled, late-19th-century technology been invented, than it became one of the icons of the Industrial Revolution, a sign of economic prosperity.
But the greenhouse gases spewing from these vehicles' tailpipes have contributed to the profound change in the Earth’s climate. As a result of planetary warming, large swaths of the West have been drying out. Since the 1980s, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California have borne the brunt of this process, according to the Palmer Drought Severity Index; and the pace has quickened over the past two decades.
Other EPA data indicates that warmer and drier conditions will persist for the rest of the century, altering vegetation cover, endangering wildlife and sparking a significant increase in intense fire activity. The result is anthropogenic, meaning “we did it.”
Less well understood is that this rapidly evolving human geography has forged a close link between sprawl and wildland fire. Consider that booming Clackamas County near Portland and fast-growing Deschutes County in eastern Oregon are both under a fire-siege.
Los Angeles is the poster-child for the history of this larger western experience. Between the 1950s and 1970s, for example, its elite began to build mansions in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills. No sooner had celebrities set up house there than devastating fires ripped through the neighborhoods. In 1961, a tie-wearing Richard Nixon was photographed atop his Bel Air home, hose in hand, wetting down its shake-shingled roof.
Since then, a migratory surge has flowed out on a dense freeway network, whose every exit contains an interlocking set of subdivisions, gas stations, restaurants and big-box centers. Fire mitigation has not been high on residents' agenda, and these insta-towns, some with low-income residents, have generated the same smoke-filled results. Fires have swept through the town of Sylmar, located in northern Los Angeles County, four times since 2008.
This pattern of build-and-burn will continue in Southern California and elsewhere because city representatives and county commissioners, along with those developers who underwrite their political campaigns, green light housing projects. This includes some that are slotted into high-severity fire zones. One example is the gargantuan 12,000-acre planned community called Centennial that is being built in the flammable foothills of the Sierra Pelona and Tehachapi mountains. When completed, it will be home to 60,000 people, many of whom will commute into Los Angeles on an already gridlocked I-5.
What could halt this suburbanizing march into the woods throughout the West? Stronger local control over new development with a hand from insurance companies, weary from shelling out money to subsidize building again and again in fire zones.
Everything else seems to have failed.
Meanwhile, a bit of unsolicited advice to residents of California, Oregon and Washington: Better keep a go-bag handy so you’re ready when told to evacuate.
Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.com, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a writer and professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.